Thursday, August 04, 2005

New Writing - Isaac Asimov: 1920-1992 by Timothy Collinson

If there’s one person I can point to and say: ‘this is who encouraged me to write’, it would have to be Isaac Asimov. Not because he had a particular style that I wanted to learn and adopt; some would say he has very little in the way of ‘style’. Not because of the three-dimensional characters he created; some would say that his characterization was weak. And not because I particularly wanted to emulate a brash American author whose penniless parents emigrated with him from Russia when he was just 3 years old and who had no low opinion of his own brilliance.

But the one thing Asimov did do, was write. And write, and write. He was an immensely prolific author who turned out hundreds of books - something like 470 - and could turn his hand to nearly any subject you could name. Certainly any subject that interested him - and he was interested in so many! Indeed, the word polymath might almost have been coined to describe him.

Perhaps best known for his science fiction another great strength was his ‘popularization’ of science in essays that could explain complex topics in a simple yet interesting and inspiring way. But these two genres were just the tip of the iceberg. His output ranged from multi-volume guides to the Bible and Shakespeare to collections of slightly salacious limericks as an enthusiast of the verse form. On the way he took in detective stories, scientific papers, annotated works from Gilbert and Sullivan to Paradise Lost, compiled joke books, fact books, and quiz books, edited numerous anthologies and much, much more. A bibliographer’s nightmare, lists of his oeuvre commonly run to dozens of pages.

But this wasn’t just quantity over quality. Asimov won top awards for his writing. 7 Hugos (from the World Science Fiction Society) and 6 Nebulas (from the Science Fiction Writers of America). The SFWA also awarded him the title “Grand Master” in 1986. In polls of science fiction short stories, he’s commonly credited with the best of all time: ‘Nightfall’.

And ‘Nightfall’ exemplifies part of what it is that made Asimov great - the exploration of a simple idea or observation that stirs the imagination and takes a good stab at answering the question: ‘what if?’ In ‘Nightfall’s case, what if night came only once every 2,000 years? It’s hard not to finish reading the story without a sense of wonder spreading down the spine. Asimov could take an idea from the science he loved so much and spin a tale that drew you in and convinced the reader that this wasn’t merely possible, this is how it could be.

Other landmarks include the creation of a science fictional mainstay nowadays, the three laws of robotics. Asimov felt that if we were ever to build human like robots that were part of everyday life, we’d naturally ensure that they were as safe as any other tool we might use. Hence:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

His classic series of short stories in the ‘I, Robot’ collection then explored what might happen if such laws existed. The recent film of the same name just barely resembles something the Grand Master himself might have recognized! Though no doubt he himself would have felt it was only appropriate his name was lent to a blockbuster movie.

A third work that he is often particularly remembered for is his Foundation series. Originally a ‘trilogy’ - though in fact it was first presented as a series of short stories across several issues of Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s (at the same time he was doing his PhD) - Asimov returned to it after a long hiatus and extended the series into not just a whole series of books, but connecting it up with his series of robot books, a massive future history that once again captured imaginations and showed the breadth of Asimov’s imagination and his brilliance at constructing not just imaginary worlds but an entire universe. Foundation posits the existence of a human empire that spans millions of worlds and fills the galaxy asking the question: what if such an empire should start to collapse as the Roman Empire did?

But this only begins to touch on one aspect of his writing and there was so much more. If nothing else Asimov made the whole business of writing look easy. In his asides to his “Gentle Reader” he would even talk about his writing and the process of putting words on paper. It helped to show that writing wasn’t an arcane skill of a superior elite inaccessible to ordinary mortals. He demonstrated above all that to be a writer, you must simply write.


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